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“Baraka,” “Brothels,” and What Doc Makers Owe

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By Frank Rinaldi

IFC News

Last month, the Academy released its short list of potential nominees for this year’s Best Feature Length Documentary award. Included was filmmakers’ Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s buzz-garnering “The Boys of Baraka,” which chronicles the lives of four black boys coming of age in the projects of Baltimore, one of America’s poorest and most dangerous cities. The kids are given a chance to gain a better education via the Baraka School for Boys, located in Kenya and dedicated to providing guidance and hope for inner city males who might not otherwise have a chance to experience life outside the environment they were born into.

“Boys” brings to mind last year’s Oscar-winner “Born Into Brothels,” filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s visceral depiction of Indian youths growing up in Sonagchi, one of Calcutta’s most infamous red light districts, , where Briski teaches an introductory and informal photography class to a handful of residential pre-teens.

Examined together, there are plenty of obvious parallels between the two pictures, but after viewing each in succession, I noticed a fundamental difference between them, a discovery that had me asking a lot of questions, particularly: What good do these “social awareness” films really do? Are the subjects merely being exploited by publicity-savvy artists, or are the filmmakers fulfilling their unspoken obligation to help their subjects by drawing attention to these widely ignored realities?

One of the cardinal rules of the documentary is to capture and communicate some sort of truth. “Born Into Brothels” is indeed harrowing in its depiction of India’s lower castes, illegal businesses and abject poverty. As the film progresses, we also see Briski’s determined attempts to rescue her students by begging parents and patiently navigating Kafkaesque bureaucracy in order to enroll her students in various private schools,though in the end, most of the students were either removed by their parents, or decided to remove themselves. Briski did what she could. She didn’t abandon those she inspired, leaving them with a head full of unachievable goals and a heart full of maddening desire, but took action and opposed the traditional role of the documentarian as passive observer.

So does “The Boys of Baraka” follow suit in its articulation of truth? In a fucked up way, it does convey the harsh mechanics of a repressed society, how they affect the individuals living within and how, when placed into a supportive environment, those individuals can flourish But the film also smacks of manipulation and exploitation — I left feeling angry and guilty, but not for the “right” reasons, or rather, not for the reasons one would expect a naive upper-middle class white boy to feel after watching a movie about children growing to adulthood amidst terrifying and almost hopeless circumstances. As if the lives of Montrey, Devon, Richard and Romesh weren’t, aren’t difficult enough, a pair of artists gets the gumption to gallantly document their story of overwhelming hardship and sell it to a Sunday-afternoon arthouse crowd looking to feel cheap-sad and be cheap-moved for an hour and a half as they observe the very real and very foreign plight of these young men. And I have to ask, at what cost is this happening and for what benefit? I did some research on the matter and, as far as I can tell, the film will in no way directly aid in the alleviation of the societal maladies it so “responsibly” identifies. At the end of the day, “The Boys of Baraka” simply comes off as an exploitative take-it-to-the-streets effort that is likely to remedy very little.

Yes, the conveyance of truth is a quintessential goal of the documentary, but when a problem is recognized, sitting on your ass and acknowledging its existence simply isn’t enough. Therein lies the most profound rift separating two of the past years’ most widely regarded documentaries. Both recognize and explore the realities of a social malady, but only one attempts to do anything about, while the other falls short

After all, according to the terse tried and true G.I. Joe maxim, “Knowing is half the battle.”

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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